“Cousin Elizabeth! What a pleasure it is to have you as my dinner partner,” Mr. Collins said, leaning closer to her than Elizabeth would like.
“You flatter me, sir,” she said, leaning away from him. “At a family dinner such as this, are we not all dinner partners?”
“Indeed we are,” he said, smiling widely at her. “But with company as charming as yours, I am sure I can be excused for mistaking the matter.”
Elizabeth glanced across the table and saw that three of her four sisters were staring at her jealously. Jane, the only one who understood the reality of the situation, looked at Elizabeth pityingly. Jane knew that, were it not for her connection to Mr. Bingley, she might be in the same situation as Elizabeth.
“Perhaps after dinner you will allow me to read to you another of Fordyce’s sermons?” Mr. Collins asked.
“Oh, dear,” said Elizabeth, who was planning to use the time after dinner to read the latest novel in which she was engrossed. “I am afraid that I feel as if I have a headache. It might be best for me to retire to my room after the meal.”
“I would adore a reading from Fordyce’s Sermons, Mr. Collins,” said Lydia in a sweet voice. “I feel that they help me to be a better person.”
“Is there anything that I can do to assist you, dear cousin?” Mr. Collins asked, ignoring Lydia.
“The only assistance I would ask is for you to read to my dear sisters,” Elizabeth said. “I would not want to deny them their chance at salvation simply because I am feeling ill. I do ask, however, that I might take Jane with me. She knows how I prefer my compresses applied.”
“It does you great credit, Cousin Elizabeth, that you are concerned with the spiritual welfare of others even as you suffer!” cried Mr. Collins. “You are such a gracious young lady; if only all women were so devout.”
Elizabeth resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She sensed that there was nothing she could do to dissuade her cousin.
The following morning, Elizabeth was forced to fend off Mr. Collins’ continued exclamations of hope for her good health and exhortations to rest if she felt ill in the slightest. Even making up excuses to escape Mr. Collins led to more of Mr. Collins. He seemed to think himself very charming, and there were those in the Bennet household who would agree. Unfortunately for both Mr. Collins and herself, Elizabeth was not one of them.
Elizabeth waiting until Mr. Collins was deep in conversation with Mrs. Bennet before saying, “I believe that I shall take a walk. The fresh air will clear my head.”
Mr. Collins’ head swiveled around. “A walk, my dear cousin? Well, I ought to accompany you to ensure that you are not taken ill while away from home.”
“Well, it certainly would not be proper for the two of you to walk unchaperoned!” said Lydia, sounding scandalized. Elizabeth resisted the urge to sigh at the idea of Lydia as the moral center of the Bennet household. She knew very well that Lydia only wished to be close to Mr. Collins.
“Yes, we all ought to go. We can walk to Meryton! Lydia and I want to look for ribbons for the ball!” said Kitty.
So, much against Elizabeth’s will, the trip was organized and embarked upon. Jane had taken pity on Elizabeth and decided to accompany her, and Mary came along as well. Mary and Mr. Collins matched quite well, both of them dressed in dark, somber colors. Kitty and Lydia, by contrast, had decked themselves out like peacocks. Elizabeth knew that the combination of a walk with Mr. Collins and the chance of seeing officers in Meryton was far too much inducement for her sisters to refrain from dressing in all their finery.
“Do you ladies often walk to Meryton?” asked Mr. Collins.
“Kitty and I do nearly every day. Meryton is so much more lively than staying at home! One never knows whom one will meet. Lizzy does not often come with us, though. She prefers to walk the fields by herself. Mama says that she is far more solitary than a young lady ought to be.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at her sister. To think that Lydia was lecturing her!
“Solitary pursuits bring one closer to God,” said Mr. Collins, beaming a smile in Elizabeth’s direction as if he was rescuing her. “I think it speaks well of Cousin Elizabeth that she enjoys such things.”
“Well, yes, of course that sort of solitude is agreeable,” said Lydia, unwilling to disagree with anything Mr. Collins might say. “But is frolicking in the mud really the mark of a lady?”
“I have never frolicked; I have only capered,” Elizabeth said, successfully keeping the irritation she felt out of her voice.
“I am sure, whatever you might call it, that you approached it with the proper ladylike disposition,” said Mr. Collins.
“My disposition cannot be judged, as I walk by myself, but I assure you that my conscience feels no weight due to the situation,” Elizabeth responded.
“Oh, Cousin Elizabeth!” said Mr. Collins, laughing. “How charmingly you speak.”
Elizabeth thought it to be time to leave Mr. Collins to the younger girls, and intentionally slowed her pace to fall behind with Jane.
“I am quite exhausted with being unintentionally charming,” Elizabeth said in a low voice.
“He does seem quite taken with you, Lizzy. He’s a handsome enough man; perhaps once we get to know him, he will not seem quite so foolish?”
“Jane, you know I admire your ability to see the goodness in everyone,” said Elizabeth, “but if it was not for Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins would certainly be focusing all his attention on you. How would you like that?”
Elizabeth watched as Jane fought an involuntary shiver.
“That is what I thought,” said Elizabeth, confident that her point was made.
Kitty and Lydia kept Mr. Collins’ attention off Elizabeth for the remainder of the walk into Meryton. Elizabeth was relieved for the respite and took the opportunity to enjoy being outdoors in the fresh air. Mary kept attempting to fall behind the rest of the group, so Elizabeth hurried her along. Mary’s esteem for Mr. Collins was apparent, but if Mary did nothing to make herself noticed, she would continually be outshone by her talkative younger sisters. Elizabeth suspected that, of all the Bennet girls, Mary would be the best fit for the wife of a parson, and she was determined to give Mary any support that was needed.
As their party arrived in Meryton, the distinctive red jackets of the militia officers were immediately noticeable.
“Ooooh, there’s Denny!” said Lydia, standing on the balls of her feet and waving. She then remembered that she was attempting to be proper for Mr. Collins and took his arm, casting her eyes demurely towards the ground. However, her greeting had already worked, and Captain Denny and another man were making their way over.
Captain Denny greeted each of the ladies in turn, and they introduced him to Mr. Collins. It was clear that Mr. Collins was not overly impressed by Captain Denny, nor by the familiar way that Lydia had greeted him. Elizabeth was reminded of the fights that the roosters had over dominance of the hens. They flew at one another brandishing their spurs, with their iridescent feathers alive in the sunlight. Mr. Collins looked very much as if he would like to use his spurs on Denny.
Denny, on the other hand, peered openly and curiously at Mr. Collins. Elizabeth suspected that Denny had not formed enough of a connection—and thank goodness for that!—to any of the Bennet girls that would lead to him being threatened by the presence of another man. It was interesting to observe the contrast between the two of them.
“This is Mr. Wickham. He has just enlisted in the militia,” Denny said, after a moment of observing Mr. Collins.
Even with Mr. Collins to impress, Lydia could not bear to allow herself to go unnoticed. She gave Wickham a deep curtsy and said, “I hope that you are fond of dancing, sir, as there are often young ladies without partners at our meeting room dances.”
Wickham returned Lydia’s curtsy with a low bow. “I do enjoy dancing, and I would be delighted to serve as a dancing partner for whichever of the young ladies in Meryton are in need.”
“Perhaps you should request the first dance with Lizzy at Mr. Bingley’s ball,” said Lydia with a giggle. “She was quite rudely thrown over by a man named Darcy at the last dance.”
Wickham was instantly alert. “Not Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy?”
“The same!” replied Lydia. “Do you know him?”
“There is some connection between our families,” Mr. Wickham said. “I was simply surprised to hear the name.”
“Lydia, you cannot invite people to Mr. Bingley’s ball,” Elizabeth said in a low voice.
“Then it is fortunate that Mr. Bingley has invited the regiment to attend,” said Denny. “Wickham, perhaps you ought to secure the first dance. With such a lovely partner, this may be your only chance before her dance card is filled entirely up.”
“I am afraid that I have already secured the first dance with my cousin,” Mr. Collins said, daring Wickham to oppose him.
“I did not realize. I meant no offense to either of you, sir,” said Mr. Wickham with a bow. “Are you engaged?”
“We most certainly are not,” said Elizabeth, more harshly than she intended.
“Well, then, perhaps you will save me a dance, Miss Bennet.”
She did not know him, but Elizabeth suspected that a dance with Mr. Wickham would be far superior to spending the night dancing with Mr. Collins.
“I accept,” she said, and smiled. Wickham returned her smile in a way that made a small thrill run up Elizabeth’s spine. She found that she was not at all upset at the idea of spending more time with the handsome Mr. Wickham.
Elizabeth had the opportunity to continue observing Mr. Wickham, as he and Captain Denny accompanied their group through Meryton. Kitty and Lydia insisted on looking at trimmings for their dresses, and Captain Denny offered to go with them (for what reason, Elizabeth could not imagine). That left the rather uncomfortable combination of Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Wickham. Mary was attempting to draw Mr. Collins’ attention by being a perfect example of quiet piety; Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham were both trying to gain Elizabeth’s attention, with one being much more successful than the other; and Jane was watching the entire awkward even unfold.
“Miss Elizabeth, I am shocked to think that a man, even one like Mr. Darcy, could resist your charms,” said Mr. Wickham.
Elizabeth blushed a bit at his words and smiled at him.
Mr. Collins started as if he had not heard their previous discussion. “Is this Mr. Darcy that you speak of from Derbyshire?”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Wickham. “He owns the estate of Pemberley. Do you know him?”
“Well, I know of him,” said Mr. Collins, clearly excited. “He is the nephew of my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh! How extraordinary that he might be here!”
“Indeed,” said Mr. Wickham mildly. He then changed the topic by asking Elizabeth’s opinion on how many people would be in attendance at Mr. Bingley’s ball.
“I would expect quite a few people,” she replied. “Especially considering the happy event of his invitation to all the officers.”
“Shall there be enough ladies to go around?” asked Wickham.
“I daresay there shall be, and if not, gentlemen are less likely to mind sitting out a dance than ladies are, in my observation.”
“And a sharp observation it is,” said Wickham, smiling at her.
“But let us not forget to whom your first dance is promised,” said Collins, desperate at being left out of the conversation.
“Certainly, Mr. Collins, I shall not forget your gallantry at asking,” said Elizabeth, then turned her attention back to Mr. Wickham.
They continued their light conversation, including Jane, Mary, and Mr. Collins as often as they could manage. None who were watching them, however, could be left with any doubt that the main conversationalists were Elizabeth and Mr. Wickham.
Even a man as lacking in observation as Mr. Collins could not miss the connection that was being forged in front of his eyes. His attempts to insert himself into the conversation and draw Elizabeth’s attention were unsuccessful, and he became visibly more irritated with each rebuffed effort. It was not until the Bennet girls had bid farewell to Denny and Wickham and started the journey back to Longbourn that Mr. Collins began to return to his standard awkwardly formal manner. It was clear that he had not planned to have any sort of competition for Elizabeth’s affection, and the meeting with Mr. Wickham left him concerned about what would happen in the near future.